It was only in the spring of 1992, when I returned home from Qi Luo's hospital with my mind straightened out, that I was at last able to face the truth: my mother and my friend Ho, whom I loved dearly, were both dead. And my friend Yin Nan had left me forever.
The apartment was dark and silent, dust everywhere, lifeless.
My once so familiar home no longer recognized me. It was as if a new tenant had arrived. Even though I tried to behave like a familiar old friend, it remained silent and uneasy.
I could tell that from the moment I left, time had stopped in these rooms.
As I stepped softly inside, I said to myself, "I've come home! I feel terrible – just when everyone else left you, I left you too. But I had no choice, they took me away."
I looked out the window. The sun was bright, beautiful. The trees with their soft green branches, unable to restrain themselves, waved softly, solicitously, back and forth. The window curtains in the ranks of apartments opposite were fluttering slowly like colored photographs come to life, blocking out all the grief outside. Beyond the buildings, the cold, impersonal highway stretched its hungry hand toward the distant spring mountains and the limitless blue sky. On the mountains the hazy firs, proud poplars, and brightly blossoming clove trees waved their pastel wings in the gentle wind, an embroidery of spring colors set against the gray clouds and lovingly delicate mists. The languid spring sun inclined its sleepy head upon the warm pillow of young leaves.
It was truly the beginning of spring.
I turned to look at the empty room. I didn't want to believe that so many years had actually passed away. It was like awakening from an immense dream, unable to remember any of it.
From a neighbor's window, the faint, unsteady strains of a woman softly singing floated on the air. It was a song that Ho used to sing:
My sobs well wanton,
As I open the window, gray.
Oh, take me, take me away,
Or bury me. Open this door,
This door I beat with my tears.
All time has passed away
And left me here alone.
I closed the window. I couldn't bear listening to that song. I wanted to get rid of it, along with all the numberless white and pink and blue pills dissolved into my system in the hospital, along with all the grief and despair in my heart and the marrow of my bones that I had already jettisoned.
I spent the following days assessing this new, erupting world of dreams.
I call it a dream world because I did, in fact, essentially spend those days in a dream state. Like a little baby, I needed endless hours of sleep. Most people would likely regard such a constant need for sleep as simple physical fatigue. That's just a biological explanation.
But seen from an outside, objective point of view, this excessive desire to sleep was the product of the need to suppress or alleviate my fears, my sense of hopelessness, and my suffering. It's rather like the sexual drive of a failed man. It is much more likely that a person who has experienced failure in life will have some sort of overpowering need that must be satisfied to bring him peace of mind than that a person who has achieved great success and a good reputation in life will, because the former must prove his ability and his worth to himself, and his importance to others. He will use his sexual prowess to overwhelm others, to place himself in a dominant position.
After thinking about it for a long time, I began to recognize the many questions I needed answers to, and to find some of the answers.
But I still wasn't ready to reveal this to anyone.
All I can say is that this new understanding had not come to me abruptly, but rather had taken shape gradually, in the way that the arrival of night is not the sudden dropping of an impenetrable black curtain but a slow and gradual deepening of shade.
At the same time I had also come to realize that if a person lives within a fragmented world, unless she can find harmony and completeness within herself, she will walk the same road to perdition as the world around her. Every outward nervous symptom is the product of a fierce conflict between a person's inner needs and the realities of the world around them. It's the same as symptoms of a physical illness. They are manifestations of the struggle within a healthy body against influences harmful to it.
I leafed through the pages of confused notes left on my desk from before I was taken to the hospital. I couldn't clearly understand many of them, but still, I could try to guess.
I had a feeling that these notes could be extremely important because of the time when they were written. This led me to think that I should write down my personal history, that with my individual peculiarities I could take my place as one of the many unique entities that make up the multiplicity of humankind, my uniqueness determined by all those other unique natures with whom I coexist. Though every person is alone, a single isolated entity, with a history that is different from everyone else's, she cannot live without connection to her fellow human beings. She has no choice but to share in the joys and sorrows of the people of her time.
So, although she is a unique entity, she is also a representative facet of what it is to be human. This realization set my resolve to analyze those notes I had scribbled prior to my hospitalization.
One afternoon, I had dozed off, curled up in a blanket on the sofa leafing through some of my notes.
Suddenly the doorbell rang.
Punching my feet into my slippers, I went out to open the door.
It was Qi Luo.
I was delighted.
He said, "I brought you something."
A bit nonplussed, I took the big envelope he handed me, without any notion of what it might contain.
He said, "Aren't you always asking me about how you got sick? Wouldn't you like to go over your own records to trace the development of your illness? As your doctor, I'm not allowed to give them to you. But you're different, not really a patient at all, at least, not one of my usual patients. So I've brought them over for you. They'll help you understand what you've been through, put things together."
I pulled out a stack of paper that smelled of disinfectant and there it was – a complete record of my former condition:
HI NIUNIU-MEDICAL RECORD
(1) General Information: Name: Ni Niuniu
Marital Status: Single
Place of Birth: Beijing, China
Present Address: Suite 1105, Bldg. 2, Houguaibang Street, Beijing
Date of Admission: 15/4/91
Commencement Date of This Record: 16/4/91
Informants: Yu Shui (patient's neighbor), reliable.
Tong Li (university deskmate), reliable.
Ni Wen (patient's father), not reliable.
(2) General Observations:
For several months patient has been impulsively writing and drawing. Hears and converses with voices. Suicidal tendency.
(3) Family History:
Patient's uncle, mental breakdown at 40. Wouldn't leave house. Feared arrest. Afraid to meet people. Passive. Talked to himself a lot. Hanged himself after five years. No other mental illness, idiocy, epilepsy, suicide, alcoholism, unusual behavior, or addictions on mother's or father's side for three generations.
(4) Personal History:
Mother's pregnancy normal, but she suffered mental pressure and tension because branded a capitalist roader. Pregnancy full term, birth free of complications, but patient frail in childhood. Development normal, walked at one year, talked at 18 months (liked talking to herself, called her arms and legs the "Misses Do" and the "Misses Don't," conversed with them often). Entered primary school at six, good student, always near head of class. Continued on through middle school and university with excellent grades.
Began menstruation at 14. Irregular (4-6 days/28-35 days).
Born to a cadre family, only child. Parents' relationship strained, both involved in work. Home life lacked warmth. Patient introverted, thinking patterns unusual, even startling. Behavior often involuntary and strange. Once cut legs off father's new trousers with scissors. Doesn't relate well with classmates or teachers, prefers own company, shuns conversation with others. Given to fantasy, relates having seen people on the street turn into a pack of wolves, which then surrounded her. Sporadic passion for drawing. Quiet and uncommunicative as a child, dubious intimacy with an older female neighbor. Grown up, still finds it hard to mix, couldn't adjust to dormitory life at university, lived at home. Few close friends. Indecisive, reverses decisions repeatedly. Likes walking, connects it with personal evolution, insists her personal action has overturned Darwin 's theory of evolution.
(5) Past Illness:
Contracted measles and double pneumonia at age three, frail in health since then. Ho record of epilepsy, tuberculosis, external injuries, poisoning, or other infectious diseases.
(6) Present Illness:
Illness likely induced by loss of a number of relatives and friends. Refuses to face the truth. Before this, no obvious abnormality. Recently patient has been unable to sleep, eats little, is inactive and indifferent, ignores people for no reason, and is unable to attend her classes. Compulsive urge to write and paint, thinking incoherent and disordered. Claims there are instruments controlling her, such as atomic piles, and voices that talk to her; that we are all, herself included, substitutes for our true selves. At night, too excited to sleep; unable to feed herself.
PE: Heart, lung, liver, kidneys-normal
Temperature – 37
CHS: Patient refused to cooperate
ME: Mind clear, but patient disoriented
Denied she was ill, hospitalized against will. Pays no attention to her appearance, thin and weak. Ho interest in food or drink. Incapable of managing her own daily life. Unable to sleep at night due to agitation. Refuses to be examined. Frequently throws away prescribed drugs. Cooperates occasionally with nurses. Has nothing to do with other patients, refuses to participate in group activities, staying in room by herself. Talks to herself, says she is surrounded by enemies.
(8) Cognitive Processes: Language fragmented when agitated. Disconnected comments such as: "What am I doing in a planetarium?" "I might as well die, civilization is a fraud." Believes one of her hands is controlled by outside forces. Asked which hand, she replied, "Right hand." Also claims she is held in tight bonds.
Memory fragmented. Says her name is "Miss Nothing."
(9) Intellectual Ability:
Able to explain the apparent contradictions of such phrases as "opposition through agreement," "the poverty of golden dreams," "witching for water to quench your thirst," "rebellion through submission"; can explain such things as why those born deaf cannot learn to speak, why the soles of running shoes are always so uneven, why ice floats on water, and why railway trains cannot run on highways; recognizes the different connotations of such terms as "modesty" and "self-abasement," "fantasy" and "ideals," "respect" and "flattery," "liveliness" and "frivolity"; clearly understands the different implications of the phrases "a wolf in sheep's clothing" and "a sheep in wolf's clothing," and illustrated this rather humorously by picking up a writing brush made of wolf hair with a core of sheep hair, saying that it was a sheep in wolf's clothing. But patient's responses to mathematical questions slow and inaccurate. She was unable to count down from 100 in sevens, and could not figure what the change on a dollar would be when purchasing three eight-cent postage stamps.
(10) Emotional Processes:
Largely keeps to her own thoughts, showing no interest in what goes on around her. Pays no attention to others. Sometimes will not even answer doctor's questions.
(11) Motivation and Behavior:
Generally inactive, spends much time in bed, makes no effort to communicate with others, doesn't look after herself well. Once in a while her old energy returns. On one occasion she suddenly embraced one of the doctors and said, "Yin Han, let's get married." (Yin Han was name of patient's former boyfriend.) When her father unexpectedly came to see her, behaved as if she did not know him, saying, "Leave me alone, leave me alone" – nothing else.
Patient's first hospitalization; light care.
Doctor: Qi Luo
I began an intense scrutiny of these records, digging deeply into every entry and taking copious notes.
One day as I was working away at this, I got all excited as I recalled Nostradamus's prophecy. I started figuring the time left.
It was already the spring of 1992, with seven years to go until 1999. I really like the number seven, and nine was my absolute favorite of all numbers. But that wasn't important. I did a little figuring – seven years is 2,555 days, only 61,320 hours, and I had to straighten out all these questions before I died.
Time was pressing, and I didn't know if there were any shortcuts.
Not long after that, I had a perfectly normal dream.
The character in the dream was my then self, but the time was pushed back to when Mother, Father, and I were all still living together. It was at the time in my childhood when we lived in the house with the huge date tree in the courtyard. The wet courtyard was carpeted with lush green leaves blown down by the wind, the branches of the tree stretching like great long arms, the longest arms in the world, from the east wall right across to rest firmly on the west wall of the courtyard, and the ground was sprinkled with sweet dates as fat and round as little pigs.
That opportunistic cat that I had so hated in my childhood also put in an appearance, strutting self-importantly back and forth in front of me.
Everything in the scene was from my childhood.
I dreamed that I was getting ready to go to a palace I had never been to before, a palace with shining golden walls that everyone else knew about but I didn't. And I still didn't know how to get there. From the map I could see that it was a long, long way away. Then that opportunistic cat paraded over in front of me to tell me about a little path. He said it was much shorter and would save me a lot of time and energy. Because I didn't trust him, I phoned the palace to make sure. They said the little path would take me to the palace, but that when I got there it wouldn't be the same palace anymore.
When I woke up, the symbolic message of the dream was obvious.
It let me see that there are no shortcuts in this world, so I started to work furiously on the material on my desk.
How ironic it was that just when I felt that every day might indeed be my last, my story had finally begun.
For an entire year I put everything into my work. I spent the greater part of every day recalling and setting down my personal history, or burying myself deep in thought. Probably because there were so few things in that apartment that had any energy or life in them, the feeling began to affect me. It felt as if my blood were congealing, and even my period was affected, the cycle getting longer and longer, my period coming later and later.
At first I paid no attention to this problem. But after a while, I began thinking that maybe, just as with mental illness, my body was signaling me that it was involved in a struggle against forces harmful to its health. So I decided to go and see Qi Luo.
By this time Qi Luo and I had become genuine friends, not just doctor-patient "friends."
He gave me a little bottle of pills with the medical name "levoromethylnorethindrone," or, in lay terms, birth-control pills.
"What kind of a joke is this?" I asked. "I spend the whole day locked up in an empty house like a vestal virgin, yet you want me to take birth-control pills?"
He laughed. "You don't understand. Aside from preventing the implantation of eggs in your uterus, they regulate your body's production of endocrinal hormones." That, I could understand.
Before I went to bed that night, I swallowed that little round yellow birth-control pill, and turning to look at my empty, guiltless bed, I couldn't stop laughing. I laughed and laughed. I laughed until tears were streaming down my face.
It seemed like that little pill did not want to do what it was told. It stuck in my throat where it jiggled about, refusing to go down, as if it were enjoying some preposterous joke.
After that, my long, arduous research began in earnest, and my dogged persistence at this endless and draining work left me exhausted.